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Montreal Families

Strategies to deal with the terrible twos

Around the time your child turns 2, you might start noticing behaviour that prompts you or someone else to declare, “She’s in the terrible twos!” Your once sweet baby might start throwing tantrums, hurling items, and using his or her new favourite word, “no!”

What if, instead of labelling this “the terrible twos,” we call it the “teach me twos.” After all, during this time, your child is learning and developing, albeit with strong emotions thrown into the mix. Let’s break down toddlerhood from a brain science perspective to help understand and support kids during this phase.

What Is Happening in Their Brain?

Toddlerhood is a challenging time for many parents. Even when we give our children exactly what they ask for, they sometimes fall to the ground screaming and crying. A toddler is learning the very early steps of regulating their emotions. This includes learning how to cope with discomfort both internally (how they feel) and externally (how they act).

During toddlerhood, the frontal lobe, the thinking part of the brain, is still developing and needs assistance from parents to think things through. Picture a mountain. When a child is fully regulated and calm, they are sitting comfortably on the grass at the bottom of the mountain, which we’ll call the green zone. Then, something happens such as a sibling not sharing a toy or there is overstimulation such as being faced with loud noises or bright lights. These events, which most adults can deal with, start dysregulating a child and take them from the green to the yellow zone. This is when they’re upset but you can still reason with them and offer tools to cope with emotions like taking deep breaths or walking away from a situation. If conditions don’t improve, or you try to correct them, they quickly go from 0-100, running up the mountain to the top, the red zone. At this point, their brain goes “offline” and it becomes extremely difficult to get through to them. Their brain doesn’t “hear” you. You need to wait for them to be back in the yellow zone.

Dealing with the “Teach Me Twos”

We need to remind ourselves that our toddler isn’t acting this way to hurt our feelings, but because they need our assistance with making sense of their emotions. Being cognizant of this can help you contextualize the behaviour and help you remain calm when your child throws a fit because you gave them the red cup instead of the blue one.

The first thing you can do the next time your toddler is hitting, yelling, or throwing objects, is to take a deep breath. You want to be fully regulated and calm before addressing the behaviour. Remember that most behaviours are reflective of the underlying emotion (frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, or worry).

Once you are calm enough to respond rather than react, try being sensitive and responsive. Saying things like “I can see you are angry right now” or “I know it is frustrating to hear no” helps children put words to their emotions. Don’t ignore any behaviour that is harmful like hitting or biting. Address it while still being sensitive to their emotions. This would sound like “I can’t let you hit your sister, but I can see that you are sad that she is playing with your favourite toy.”

Toddlerhood is a developmental phase and your child will ‘grow out of’ or, rather, ‘into’ their changing brains. Helping your child move through difficult emotions can set them up for a more resilient and peaceful next few years.

Cindy Hovington is a Montreal mom of three and has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from McGill University. Her research in mental health inspired her to create Curious Neuron, an online platform with over 133,000 parents who seek parenting resources focused on emotional health and well-being. She is also the host of a top Canadian podcast called Curious Neuron. Cindy recently became the co-founder of Wondergrade, an app that helps kids ages 3-8 understand feelings, handle emotions and nurture their emotional well-being. 

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